I was awarded a UEFA Academy research grant to explore the environments of grassroot clubs across 7 European countries. This study aimed to investigate how the football club environments (in terms of their organisational capacity, assets and philosophies) contribute to ‘scaffolding’ the learning environment for children and subsequently impact the ability of those clubs to
promote the positive outcomes of youth football. Link to full findings is below:
Sport can play an influential role in the social, personal, and moral growth of children. Such involvement can potentially lead to outcomes classified as the 3Ps: Participation (engagement in sport or physical activity throughout life), Personal development (healthy psychological, social, and emotional development) and Performance (the development of sport expertise; Côté et al., 2016). This research focused on documenting the initial football ecosystem provided to 6-12-year-old children within seven UEFA federations, as the stage of ‘middle childhood’ (aged 6-12) is a crucial yet underappreciated phase of human development. This study aimed to investigate how the football club environment (in terms of organisational capacity, assets and philosophies) impacts the ability of clubs to promote the positive outcomes of youth football (3 Ps).
Clubs in the study provided football for 308,794 children (age 6-12). In almost 30% of communities, the participating club was the only football club available to 6–12-year-olds. Yet, the findings suggest that a lack of resources impacted the ability to provide football opportunities for over half of the clubs. Clubs identified dropout as a problem for their clubs; this issue grew significantly between the age groups of 6-12 to 13-16. Patterns varied across contexts, for example in different countries, size of clubs, resources available. This indicates that there may not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the issue of dropout from youth football as it emerges in differing patterns across contexts.
Grassroots clubs need organisational capacity (human, financial, structural) to fulfil their mandates, in this case, to provide a positive sporting experience for children which will facilitate the outcomes of participation, personal development and performance. Organisational capacity issues were noted amongst clubs, for example, almost 13% of clubs disagreed that the physical environment of their club was appropriate for children’s needs, while over 66% of clubs have a problem recruiting volunteers, yet infrastructural deficits and a lack of coaches can increase intention to dropout from youth football.
Developing competence, relatedness and autonomy are important for developing sustained sporting engagement, the value of autonomy scored lowest of the Participation items in clubs. Coach-athlete relationship quality and providing opportunities to interact with peers, which scored well across the clubs can enhance Personal development and potentially aid the transfer of skills to other contexts.
Football clubs’ philosophy towards community engagement was generally positive across all countries, with items such as valuing social and community engagement, having a role to play in community health promotion and acting as role-models in the community being valued by clubs. Organisational capacity may limit the maximisation of this social engagement, as many clubs struggle with finances and also securing enough human resources to run even their basic football activities.
Differing perceptions on the identification and nature of ‘talent’ in this age group were also identified, which may impact on the environments provided in relation to enhancing long-term development.
Dropout concerns, combined with insights into an initial lack of playing opportunities due to organisational capacity, should focus the efforts of all stakeholders (clubs, NAs, Local Authorities, UEFA) to proactively address the football environment provided to children. This can include helping clubs to focus on the factors related to participation explored in the current study (e.g., autonomy, competence, relatedness, enjoyment) and engaging with clubs to develop their organisational capacity to provide a sporting experience for children which can lead to life-long participation, increased personal development and enhanced performance. From this study, community and club level characteristics have been shown to display different patterns in terms of the factors related to promoting the long-term adaptive outcomes of youth sport. This adds to the importance of local governments and NAs specifically tailoring interventions to these differing community and club contexts and generating further research to understand these concepts from a multi-level perspective.
Full research project here: